SEATTLE — Maybe Tyrone Willingham was really ahead of his time.
The oft-maligned former Washington football coach ran a tight ship, letting few outsiders inside an inner circle.
And that included the media, whom he barred from watching practices at a time when a heavy majority of schools in the Pac-10 Conference kept them open.
Well, Willingham is long gone from the Huskies, but his media policy has been reincarnated around most of the expanded Pac-12.
Schools in a league once known for its openness and accessibility have undergone a dramatic transformation in a matter of only a few years in shutting the doors to practice and cutting back interviews with players.
The issue was spotlighted last week when Willingham’s successor, Steve Sarkisian, announced a policy forbidding reporters from writing about injuries as a condition of attending practice. That edict has left local news organizations, including The Seattle Times, weighing the ethics in potentially seeing news but not reporting it.
Historically, media allowed to watch practice have agreed to coaches’ bans on reporting strategy. But not to report on injuries, outlets contend, is an attempt to control the news—at a time when Twitter and Facebook might crackle with reports from students on campus who see a key player on crutches.
Why should fans care? Media contend that reporters represent the eyes and ears of the public, which includes fans thirsting for stories as they’re asked to pay hundreds for tickets and seat licenses.
Yet it’s obvious whose side fans come down on. A Seattle Times poll last week found almost 75 percent favoring Sarkisian’s edict. One reader comment on a Times blog that was critical of the decision was typical: “Hey, if somebody can show me how banning seaplane flyovers increases our chances of winning by 0.01 percent, I say Husky Stadium is a no-fly zone.”
In the bigger picture, you might think of the general trend as the Big Ten-ification of the Pac-12. For decades, there was a mindset that seemed to govern the leagues with regards to media access. The Big Ten was the league of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, the iconic coaches at Ohio State and Michigan, and when they came to the Rose Bowl, there was a marked difference in access; the old Pac-8 and Pac-10 schools were open and friendly, while Hayes once housed the Buckeyes in a monastery and shoved a camera into a photographer’s face.
That stereotype reigned as recently as five years ago, but suddenly, things have changed in the Pac-12.
Why? For one, coaching salaries have risen sharply, and the guys wearing headsets are leaving nothing to chance.
“These games are so important,” said Rich Rodriguez, the new Arizona coach.
Rodriguez and other new coaches like Washington State’s Mike Leach and Arizona State’s Todd Graham have brought their own restrictive policies from other parts of the country.
But no factor has impacted the trend like the Internet, with its multiple fan websites and their message boards. On occasion, a video or piece of intelligence that a coach finds intrusive shows up, and rather than ban the offender from practice, they’re more apt to make the pre-emptive strike and restrict all media.
When Sarkisian got the UW job in 2008, mindful of the ill will Willingham had created with his watchful eye to the outside, he announced he would conduct open practices. Since then, however, he has cut back on access, and claimed a competitive disadvantage if he didn’t invoke the latest edict.
So the standard is essentially set by the most restrictive policy, and that belongs to coach Chip Kelly at Oregon, whose practices, spring and fall, are closed, with not even a small pre-practice window for cameramen to take video.
“I felt it was the best situation for us to prepare,” says Kelly, explaining why he closes all workouts.
Coaches often cite the Internet for their closures, but they also speak of a greater sense of togetherness with nobody on the field except team-related personnel.
“It’s a mentality,” says David Shaw, the second-year coach at Stanford, where the policy was open in the early stages of coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure five years ago, but now closed. “It’s just us out on the field. I think that helps us during the course of the season.”
Taking the other side is Oregon State’s veteran coach, Mike Riley, whose policy is the most liberal in the Pac-12: Practices are not only open to reporters, but to the public.
“I like the idea of local people being able to come and spend the afternoon watching practice,” he wrote in an email. “I actually think it makes for a better environment for practice.”
Riley conceded some displeasure at a couple of instances in which, through social media, word of an injury reached a player’s parents before the staff could get off the field to call them. But, he wrote, “All in all, I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Media advocates cite the need for the traditional watchdog role of reporters, contending closed practices compromise that.
When Rodriguez was at Michigan, he ran afoul of the NCAA rule limiting athletes’ time commitment to 20 hours per week, and at Texas Tech, basketball coach Billy Gillispie has been accused of being abusive to players. Those are episodes that could be mitigated by media with greater access.
On a much greater scale, media advocates note that the Penn State child-sexual abuse scandal happened at a school where practices were closed virtually year-round.
Also, though it can’t be proven, media backers contend the restrictions feed into a slow erosion of interest in college programs at a time when schools might be creating a greater gulf between themselves and fans.
Even as conferences are signing huge media-rights deals, TV ratings are weak. Every BCS bowl last January except for the Fiesta pulled significantly fewer viewers compared to five years ago, and TV bowl ratings overall were the lowest in the 14-year history of the BCS system.
After Labor Day weekend’s 2012 opening, Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde keyed his weekly wrapup by asking the question: Where were all the fans? That was the same reaction of USC coach Lane Kiffin—who last week banned an LA Daily News reporter for an alleged violation of the same edict Sarkisian has laid down—after his No. 2-ranked team traveled 3,000 miles to the Meadowlands to beat Syracuse in front of a crowd some estimated at 30,000 to 35,000.
“You fly all the way to the East Coast,” Kiffin complained to reporters. “And then you come out and nobody shows up, so the crowd’s dead and you’ve got no juice.”
Veteran Eugene Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch noted Oregon’s regular price increases for tickets as a key reason the Ducks struggled to maintain a long string of sellouts early this season. But he also cited a perception of arrogance emanating from the school.
“Practices closed to the public,” he wrote. “Hey, this is football, not a top-secret military operation ... we all love to win. But for the first time at UO, winning doesn’t seem to be the all-purpose cleanser ... “
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told reporters last weekend that athletic directors will likely take up the issue of practice access at a regular meeting in October.
Meanwhile, in Tucson, Rodriguez lightheartedly entertained the notion that coaches can be overzealous in protecting injury information.
“We’re probably a little overly cautious,” he said, adding, “I’m not paranoid, I don’t think.”
Even if he is, Schembechler, the late coach at Rodriguez’s last school, wouldn’t have blinked an eye. Today, his descendants have landed in the Pac-12.